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Bush reiterates support for immigration reform

By Finlay Lewis

Copley News Service

2004-11-22


SANTIAGO, Chile - President Bush on Sunday assured Mexican President Vicente Fox of his continued desire to ease the predicament of millions of foreigners working illegally in the United States.

The immigration issue dominated a half-hour morning meeting between the two leaders on the concluding day of a summit of Pacific Rim nations belonging to the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation forum.

Bush reiterated his support for "reasonable immigration policies," as he and Fox met with reporters immediately after their discussion. But prospects for enactment of the administration's initiative remain murky in the face of Republican resistance on Capitol Hill.

Bush said that he gave Fox assurances that "we want people from Mexico treated with respect and dignity," while Fox said, "I think that our friendship, our relationship is strong, it's a very optimistic one, and I think that we will continue to build on it to make this partnership even stronger."

At a joint evening news conference with Chilean President Ricardo Lagos, Bush reiterated his support for the immigration plan, linking its benefits to the effort to seal the U.S.-Mexican border from drug runners and terrorists.

"It makes sense not only for our economy; it makes sense for border security," Bush told reporters gathered in a reception room in La Moneda, a presidential palace that once served as the mint for Spanish rulers after it was built in 1784. "We'd much rather have security guards chasing down terrorists or drug runners or drug smugglers than people coming to work."

The summit ended on an unusual, and possibly discordant, note in which the Chilean government laid aside plans to entertain Bush at a formal dinner.

Instead, Lagos entertained the president and about 20 top aides from their staffs at what was described as a working dinner.

According to local news outlets, Lagos balked at a U.S. Secret Service plan to screen the invited 200 guests to the formal dinner by requiring them to pass through metal detectors.

A spokesman for the Chilean government said the format change was made with the approval of both governments and that it would replicate the protocol observed by Washington during Lagos' visit there several weeks ago.

The move came one day after Secret Service agents and Chilean security guards scuffled outside a dinner for Bush and other leaders at the annual Asia-Pacific summit. The Chileans had blocked Bush's bodyguards from entering the dinner with him. Bush ultimately reached across a crowd of Chileans, grabbed his lead agent and pulled him into the room.

Scott McClellan turned aside questions about the incident, settling for a quip when he described Bush as "a hands-on kind of guy."

In his morning remarks to reporters, Fox did not address the immigration issue.

But Fox subsequently was asked on CNN whether Bush had pledged to press Congress to pass the plan, which would give temporary legal status to undocumented workers already in the United States.

"What I got, and very firmly, is his will, his will to attend this issue," Fox replied.

In his news conference remarks, Bush said, "I look forward to working on it. You asked me what my tactics are. I'm going to find supporters on the Hill and move on it."

The White House has been sounding out key lawmakers, including Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., about playing a leading role in mobilizing support for the plan under which foreigners now working illegally in the United States could be eligible to receive renewable, three-year visas. Workers living abroad would also be considered to fill jobs for which there are no American applicants.

"This is going to be... part of the president's legislative agenda for this coming session of the Congress," said a senior administration official who declined to be identified. Referring to Bush and Fox, the official added, "They're both politicians. They both understand the reality that they work in, and this is an ever present part of their conversation."

In describing his consultations with Fox, Bush told reporters, "We spent a great deal of time talking about the immigration issue. I told President Fox that I had campaigned on this issue; I made it very clear my position that we need to make sure that where there's a willing worker and a willing employer, that that job ought to be filled legally in cases where Americans will not fill that job."

Fox told reporters that he expects to visit Washington in February or March to discuss immigration and trade.

Bush's support for a large new guest-worker program has prompted warnings from key congressional Republicans.

Rep. Elton Gallegly, R-Calif., and 21 other House members, recently sent a letter to the administration, declaring, "It is not appropriate to reward those who have broken the law by granting them legal status and allowing them to remain in the United States."

Asked at the news conference about the letter, Bush said, "They're objecting to the program because it's an amnesty program. It's not an amnesty program. It's a worker program."

He added that workers involved in the program could seek citizenship by getting "in line with the people who have done so legally. I think it's necessary. I think it's an important piece of legislation."

Earlier this month, Arizona voters overwhelmingly approved a state ballot initiative to bar illegal immigrants from receiving government services.

On Saturday, an administration-backed bill to revamp the nation's intelligence agencies was scuttled in part because key Republicans were angered that the bill omitted a provision that would make it easier to deport illegal aliens suspected of posing a security threat.

In a visit to Mexico City recently, Secretary of State Colin Powell, underscoring concerns about the political obstacles confronting the president's plan, said he did not want to "over promise" prospects for its success.

In their wrap-up session, Bush and the other APEC leaders approved a variety of measures aimed to speeding negotiations on a world free trade agreement and at encouraging increased commerce and economic growth across the Pacific Rim.

They also adopted steps aimed at cracking down on terrorism, impeding the spread of weapons of mass destruction, removing threats to transportation security by, among other things, placing greater controls on commerce in shoulder launched missiles, and fighting corruption.

Another initiative seeks to increase efforts to combat the spread of AIDS and to encourage new efforts to check the spread of other infectious diseases, such as the severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), avian flu, pandemic influenza, tuberculosis, malaria and polio.

The concluding work of the summit followed by 24 hours Bush's apparently successful efforts to reinvigorate a five-nation diplomatic endeavor to pressure North Korea into surrendering its efforts to develop nuclear weapons.

Bush is to leave Chile on Monday morning headed to his ranch in Crawford, Texas, with a stop en route in Colombia. There he is to meet with President Alvaro Uribe whose government has received U.S. funding for a war against narcoterrorists and leftist rebels.

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